Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Comet PanSTARRS has entered our evening sky and will be at its very best in the week ahead. The comet is intrinsically bright, but it is so close to the sun right now that it cannot be viewed in a totally darkened sky. Scanning the sky with binoculars just above the sunset point on the western horizon should reveal the icy visitor from the Oort Cloud.
On Wednesday evening, I set up my telescope and photo equipment at a little pullout on the west-facing side of U.S. Highway 40 heading up toward Rabbit Ears Pass. I arrived just as the sun was setting, so I would know about where to start searching for the comet. Before long, a spontaneous comet-watching party had formed around me. Several carloads of curious people saw my big scope set up on the roadside and pulled in to see what was up. All eyes were turned toward the west, hoping to be the first to spot PanSTARRS below the crescent moon as the colorful twilight faded. At about 8 p.m., I spotted it with my 10x50 binoculars coming out from behind a dark strip of clouds. Within seconds, everyone else in the crowd had spotted it with their own binoculars or birding scopes. “Oohs” and “ahhs” echoed across the Yampa Valley from our high perch. PanSTARRS played hide-and-seek during the next half-hour while going in and out of the streaks of clouds with its yellow-orange dust tail streaming behind. By 8:30 p.m., it was gone, setting behind the distant peaks to the west.
Comet PanSTARRS will continue to move northward, out of the glare of the setting sun, during the next few weeks, slowly fading as it heads back to the outer solar system. As it does so, the moon will be waxing toward full and competing with the comet’s misty glow. By March 28, the moon won’t rise until the comet sets, at about 9:30 p.m., allowing us to see it in a dark sky for the first time, but by then it will have faded considerably.
A night of particular interest is April 4, when Comet PanSTARRS will appear just 2.5 degrees from the famed Andromeda Galaxy. The two fuzzy wisps should look very similar in brightness and size and present quite a sight when viewed through binoculars. Look low in the northwestern sky at about
9 p.m. for the best view.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out his astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.